Rule by the Margate Local Board of Health 1851 - 1858

Anthony Lee

2. Margate in the middle of the nineteenth century.

So what would an Inspector have found on a visit to Margate? There is no doubt that, to us, conditions would have seemed truly shocking.  First would have been the smell, as bad as anything that could be imagined. The sewers of Margate, as in most towns, were there just to take away surface water; it was an offence to discharge from any privies or water closets into the sewers. Margate’s sanitation depended on cesspools and holes in the ground. As late as 1887 a government inspector described Margate as a ‘cesspool town’ and helpfully described their design: ‘The Margate cesspool is a receptacle dug to a depth varying from 20ft. to 40ft. into the chalk, usually of conical shape, 10ft. to 12ft. in width at the base, narrowing to 3ft. or thereabouts at the entrance, which is domed or flagged over and covered with the soil of the back-yard or basement. Disused wells serve their turn frequently for cesspools’. 9 The inspector added that there was no pretence at making the cesspools watertight, ‘the object . . . being to expose as large a surface as possible to absorbent chalk, and so promote soakage in every direction.’ In addition to the cesspools ‘there are upwards of seven hundred privies discharging into pits excavated in the chalk, from 6ft. to 10ft. deep, in the poor localities of the borough, in many instances in close proximity to dwellings, and often actually against them.’ In 1874 it was estimated that the cesspools of Margate covered an aggregate area of three acres.10 Many of the cesspools were under the houses, ‘discharging foul air into them, the sewage sometimes even welling up through the floors’ so it is probably not surprising that there was a ‘constant prevalence of fever, diarrhoea, and other low types of disease’.10 Although the main sewer of the town had been designed to take away just surface water, all sorts of other unpleasantness would inevitably get into it, including horse dung and offal and blood from the slaughterhouses in the town. Unfortunately the main sewer was ‘so con­structed as to form a reservoir for sewage, which the tide occasionally drives back through the gratings’ and with the sewage outfall located near the Jetty, the rocks and beach near the jetty were ‘covered with sewage slime’.10

 In 1872 it was reported that ‘with the exception of some 60 or 70 houses, the only means of disposing of sullage in Margate is by retaining it in a cesspool or privy. These cesspools are for the most part without ventilation, many of them underneath the basement, and in the case of houses with backyards or gardens new cess-pools have been constantly dug one after the other to supplement those already full . . . The custom also is not to close the original cesspool, but this having become full to allow the overflow to pass into the 2nd or 3rd, as required . . . [these cesspools] are full of pent-up foul gas, and every time the water-closets communicating with them are used, the water rushes in . . . and the gas is necessarily displaced and forces its way into the house.  An even worse state of things exists in the lower levels of the town. In these the sea during the high tides finds its way into the cesspools and drives the foul gas in large volumes into the houses . . . [still worse are] the lower part of Hawley-street and a portion of Love-lane, where sewage saturated with faeculent matter on occasions overflows into the basements of the houses and remains a foot or two deep for days, unless bailed out’.11

The parts of town that suffered most were in the neighbourhood of Love Lane and King Street. In Meeting Court, a densely populated court off Love Lane, there was no sewer  and no water supply, but  there were ‘several privies surcharged and flowing into the footpath, evolving the vilest of stinks, endangering the health of the town’.12  A report in the Kent Herald in November 1849, under the not unreasonable headline of ‘Narrow escape from a horrible death’, describes how the family of a Mr. J. Beal, living in the Market Place, ‘were alarmed by loud screams emana­ting from the back of their premises’. 13 When they succeeded in tracing the screams ‘they were shocked to see a female of about 70 years of age immersed up to her arms in night soil; upon enquiry it appeared that the poor old woman was about to enter the closet, when from the insecure state of the flooring the boards canted over and hence she fell into the cess-pool.’ Fortunately, ‘damage was confined to the spoiling of her clothes and a severe fright.’ The newspaper correspondent examined the area and described it ‘as a perfect plague spot; the privy in question adjoins a sitting room door and within a few yards are five or six more, the result of which is that from an absence of drainage, Beal's yard is constantly surfeited with filth; they have no water on the premises, and al­together the clump of houses to which it is attached, including the Bull's Head Inn, experience the want of a sanitary law as much as any part of the town’.

In 1851 William Hart wrote directly to the General Board of Health complaining of the conditions in his house in nearby Bridge Street.14  He did not have ‘the convenience of a decent water closet or privy; the only place which I have for that purpose consists of two tin or zinc boxes. These are situated within a yard and a half of my parlour and kitchen windows and directly over the area in the rear of the house. They are small in so much as they require to be emptied monthly which entails an additional expense of 1s. 6d. each time and if the men allow them to remain for a long time which is sometimes the case partly owing to the state of the tide, or from their not being able to dodge the Police successfully, I am [living] in the stench arising from them – their contiguity to the dwellings – is in warm weather intolerable.’ On one occasion ‘one of the cans unfortunately burst and we had to wait many days before we could get it replaced by a new one, during which lapse of time the aqueous portion oozed out  . . . I was obliged to lay down a basket of sand to absorb it . . . you will say why not have it taken away . . . unfortunately we cannot always have it done when we require it, but just when the men choose to come – I paid 5s. that time to induce them to rid me of the nuisance.’

Behind Hart’s house was Dukes Court. This ‘has no thoroughfare and is the back entrance to mine and twenty two or three other houses. There is an open gutter about twenty feet by one, down which all the dirty water including chamber slops are obliged to be thrown, for we have no other means of ridding ourselves of it – there are also two dilapidated privies adjoining each other and a general dusthole in front into which all the refuse, vegetable matters and other rubbish is deposited, it is seldom emptied . . . [it] is very offensive during the warm weather - we are often obliged to have our back windows closed.’ He adds, ‘my landlord will do nothing unless compelled by the strong arm of law – so long as his rent is forthcoming at the proper time, nought else is cared for’.14

Conditions for the better off were not that much better: ‘the houses of the more affluent have their cesspools under the kitchens, or in the area behind, of a sufficient depth and capacity not to require emptying more than once in 20 years, which by some of the inhabitants is considered an advan­tage, the inconvenience and cost of emptying being saved them, not fancying that the noxious gases could by any means escape or affect the purity of the air which they inhaled, or that the poisonous fluids could injure the water they drank from the well in its immediate vicinity’.15 The introduction of water closets into some of the houses actually made things worse since the cesspools ‘in many instances have failed, the chalk not allowing the fluids to pass off sufficiently fast. The cesspool has overflowed, or been so disturbed as to be pro­ductive of unpleasant smells throughout the entire neighbourhood, but as there are no sewers to carry off the surplus waters, the first evil has been multiplied to remedy the other’.15  

The ‘inconvenience’ of emptying cesspools located under a house can only be imagined. In his book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, Mayhew described how a gang of nightsoil men worked in London, and it was probably not much different in Margate.16 They worked at night, placing large horn lanterns at the edge of the cess pool to illuminate the scene. A typical gang consisted of four labourers: one, the ‘holeman’, would stir the refuse to loosen it and fill the tub, using a ladder to descend into the pit when the level dropped. The tub, which would weigh as much as a hundredweight when it was full, was hoisted up by the ‘ropeman’. Two ‘tubmen’ then raised the tub on a long pole and carried it on their shoulders to a covered cart where it was emptied. Very often the tub had to be carried through the house, ‘to the excessive annoyance of the inmates’, observed Mayhew. Finally, when the work was done, the wagon or cart was drawn away. To avoid upsetting visitors, Margate’s householders were forbidden to remove night soil from their cesspools between the months of February and November, a regulation that seems to have been poorly enforced.17

Edwin Chadwick
London Nightmen from H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, Griffin, London, 1851.

The Margate nightsoil men sold night soil for ‘2s. 6d. or more per ton to the gardeners and farmers of the neighbourhood, who put it in a mixen’,15 a mixen being a dung-hill, ‘conveniently situated on the Lower road to St. Peter’s and at a proper distance from the Town’.18 Unfortunately the nightsoil men would often first pile their loads in the streets before taking them on to the mixen. In 1843 Daniel Dobson was convicted by the magistrates ‘for laying nightsoil in Lombard street’. He was fined £1.19 Just a week later James Jarman and Edward Jury were charged by Police Inspector Marchant ‘with casting half a load of night soil into Lombard street, and suffering the same to remain there for upwards of six hours, to the annoyance of the whole neighbourhood’. Jarman was fined 10s. with 10s. 6d. costs.20 And then in November John Jones and John Newing were both charged by Inspector Marchant ‘with having on the 8th November, laid two loads of night soil in Love Lane and left it there for two days’. Since this was Jones’ second offence he was fined 15s. and costs and Newing was fined 10s. and costs.21 The problems continued. In 1860 William Jones and Edward Johnson, two nightsoil men, were summonsed ‘for laying a quantity of night soil near the Fort steps. Police sergeant Gibbs saw it at 8 am Monday morning – the defendants were then putting it into the carts.’ Sergeant Gibbs reported that ‘it smelt very strong and was a nuisance.’ Jones and Johnson had previous form, having been frequently convicted for similar offences, and they were each fined 10s. with 8s. 6d. costs.22  

There was a strong reluctance to allow houses to connect directly with the sewers, both because the sewers would not have been able to cope with the increased load and because the main sewer discharged directly into the sea; it was thought, not unreasonably, that ‘if they emptied more sullage matter into the sea Margate would be condemned as a watering-place’.23 Looking for a cheap alternative to a better sewage system, the Town Council in 1867 recommended the use of the earth closet invented in 1860 by the Rev. Henry Moules. In its simplest form this was a wooden seat with a bucket beneath, with a hopper above, filled with fine dry earth, charcoal or ashes.24  Pulling a handle released some earth into the bucket, which could be emptied at intervals: ‘as for the quantity of earth needed for each operation, about one and a half pints would appear about the average’.25 To help make the earth closet more popular, it was proposed that the Town Council  would ‘supply earth, and remove the soil gratuitously for persons who adopt the closets’.26  A letter in the Kent Coast Times in 1868 highly recommended ‘Mr Moule’s scientific earth closet’ as it ‘has already been of great service in Bengal and elsewhere’.27 Whether the idea really caught on is doubtful but, in 1873, the design for the new Deaf and Dumb asylum building included Moule’s earth closets ‘for the out-door closets for both sexes, although  “w. c.”s will in all cases be used internally’.28  

Moule Earth Closet
Moule's Earth Closet, 1860.

Keeping a town clean also involved removing vast amounts of horse dung from the streets and stables and removing general household waste, including large quantities of ash from all the coal fires. A Board of Improvement Commissioners, also known as the  Commissioners for Pavement and as the Town Commissioners, had been established in Margate under the Margate Improvement Act of 1787.29  The board was empowered under the Act to appoint a scavenger to keep the streets clean. The Act made it an offence to put ‘ashes, rubbish, dust, dirt, dung or other filth’ in the streets, it having to be kept ‘in their respective houses or yards until such time as the scavenger . . . shall come by near their houses  or doors with a cart or carts . . . to carry away the same’. It was required that the scavenger  ‘at or before their approach, by bell, loud voice, or otherwise, shall give notice of his or their coming, and give the like notice to the inhabitants of every court, passage, or place into which the cart or carts, or other conveniences cannot pass, and abide and stay there a convenient time, so that the inhabitants, or persons concerned respectively, may bring forth their ashes, rubbish, dust, dirt, dung, and filth (except any filth from any privy or necessary house), to such cart or carts’ which would then be ‘carried away gratis’. It seems that this is not what actually happened. In 1852 it was reported that ‘scavenging is chiefly confined to the maintenance of the public streets, a contract being annually made for the removal of all refuse matters’.15  The following year it was reported that ‘ash pits and dung heaps are allowed to accumulate for the want of a contractor, whose duty it would be to remove it (as in London) on being asked’.30 Again, a letter to the Thanet Advertiser in  1866 complained that ‘removing of ashes, cinders, and other refuse from private houses is done [very badly] by private individuals using pony and donkey carts . . . They visit the better classes of houses, but neglect those which stand most in need of the removal’.31    

            To keep down the dust on the roads, especially during the summer months, the roads were regularly watered. Because there was no piped water supply in the town, sea water had to be used, and this was expensive.15 Although only one horse was required to pull a water cart round the town, two horses were required to pull the cart from the sands when it had been filled with sea water.32 The tender for watering the streets in 1860 was given to Thomas Sackett at 1s. 9d. per hour, the cost for keeping a man and two horses being about £150 per year. 32 It was proposed to purchase ‘a cart properly constructed for the removal of night soil and to be used as an additional water cart which is much wanted’, which does not sound very hygienic.18  

In King Street, adding to the rich mix, were the smells from the Gas works, where ‘the surrounding air . . . is rendered exceedingly impure by the noxious gases that are sent forth from the factory’.33 And then there were the numerous slaughter houses: ‘scattered through the town are several sheds, in which the butchers kill their bullocks, sheep, &c., and as there are no sewers to carry off the washings so frequent and necessary to maintain them in a proper condition, it is usual to sink a cesspool for that purpose, as well as for the reception of the offal, which is of course very offensive, and at all times cal­culated to produce the evils so much complained of by the neigh­bouring inhabitants’.15  The slaughter house at the back of the King’s Arm’s Hotel  ‘was a wooden building with many crevices, through which the stench must escape’.34 In 1852 there were 16 registered slaughter houses in Margate:67

John Wanstall – in Hunters Yard, High street

Robert Wanstall – at the back of St. John’s street

Stephen Tring – in Love Lane

Edward Orpin – in King street

Thomas Young Chapman – in New street

Robert Maxted – in King street

Frederick Gillham – in Well’s Yard

Mary Foat – in Mill Lane

Edward Marsh – in St. James’ square

Stephen Pamflett – at back of Market street

Thomas Wickham – at back of King street near the Gas House

William Kerby Holmans – at back of Market street

George Epps –back of Zion Place

Robert Wood – back of  King street near Castles Gardens

John Thomas Boatwright – back of New Inn yard

Edward Thomas Relph – back of Market street

Animals had to be driven through the town to reach these slaughterhouses, a procedure not without its own risks: in January 1865 ‘as some sheep were being driven into the town to the slaughter house of Mr. R. Wood, instead of going through Cecil street, they turned down the High street and on arriving opposite the shop of Mr. Alfred Wootton, china dealer, one of them dashed through the glass door into the shop, the other five quickly following  . . . they were got out “doing less damage than might have been expected”’.35 In 1876, three  bullocks were being driven through Love Lane but, as soon as one entered Mr. Brown’s slaughter house, the two others ‘showed signs of  a stubborn and wild temper’ and ran into Hawley street, knocking down a child, then to Cecil square, where they ‘capsized a milkman named Sladden’.36

Pigs were kept within the town in sties, ‘a practice fraught with abuses of the most offensive and disgusting character’.15 When the Deaf and Dumb Asylum moved into their new building in Victoria Road they complained of a highly offensive smell from the slaughter house and large piggeries in Thanet Road.37 The pigs though had competition: ‘the offensive stench and smell so often complained of [near the Pier] are caused . . . in part from fish and offal thrown under the Landing Place and upon the Beach but mainly from the Town drain, its outlets not being carried sufficiently into the Sea in consequence of which the waste water and silt are allowed to flow over an extensive surface and remain as a deposit when running off at low water.18 There was also the shed used by Mr. Savin of New Inn Yard as a herring hang, from which issued a ‘very strong-smelling irritating smoke’ that invaded the neighbouring houses in Cecil Square;38 a Miss Ladd, living in Broad Street, complained of the nuisance arising from Mr. Pamflett’s sausage manufactory.38 But especially noxious were the smells coming from the tallow melting house of Joseph Powell at the rear of Mill Lane, where animal fat was rendered down to make candles.39 Powell apparently did what he could to reduce the problem, melting the fat only once a week, starting at 9 p.m. and finishing by 4 a.m. the following morning, but  ‘it was well known that the business of a tallow-melter could not be carried on without there being, at times, some effluvia arising therefrom’.40,41 It was argued that ‘such places as Mr. Powell's must exist, and in a sanitary point of view it was  necessary that they should, because they burnt the offal that would otherwise lay stinking about the town’.41  

And then there were the particularly memorable smells. In October 1849 it was reported that ‘a barge load of feted dung, in a high state of decomposition’ had entered the harbour and been ‘discharged into carts for the land of a wealthy neighbouring farmer [Captain Cotton of Quex]. The atmosphere was tainted a good distance round by the unloading of the filth, and it was only when the complaints became loud and very general that any attempt was made to put a stop to it by the authorities’.42,43  The report added ‘the inhabitants of the houses immediately adjoining the pier are sufficiently injured by the filthy stench emanating from the harbor, which of itself is enough to engender the foulest diseases and demands immediate attention from the company to its proper cleaning out.’  Later in the month four farm labourers in the employ of Captain Cotton were each fined £5 ‘for assisting in the removal of some dung from a barge in the harbour and causing the same to be conveyed through the town, to wit the Marine-terrace, to the injury of the public health,’ despite them declaring that ‘they were unwilling offenders, being bound to obey the orders of their master’.43

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As well as inspecting the systems for sewerage and drainage, a Board of Health Inspector was required to examine the system for supplying water. This would not have taken him very long in Margate since there was little water supply system to inspect. A company to supply piped water was not established in Margate until 1857; before that everyone depended on wells and rain water for their needs. Early advertisements for the ‘better’ class of house emphasized that they had their own good supply of well water, these wells being frequently located in back gardens or yards, often cosily next to the cesspit. An advertisement for eight new houses in the New [Cecil] Square in 1770 explained that all were well supplied with ’soft spring water’.44 Nos. 49 and 50 Hawley Square, run as a boarding house, had the advantage of a ‘capital rain water tank’ and a ‘fine spring water well’.45 Lausanne House, advertised for sale in 1829, boasted, as well as its housekeeper’s room, butler’s pantry, five sitting rooms and nine bedrooms, ‘pumps of excellent spring and soft water’ and, most unusually, an ‘excellent water closet (by Bramah)’.46 Sometimes the wells were shared; four houses in Hawley street each had their own water pumps ‘with pipes laid through the back yards into a well of excellent spring water’.47

The poor, of course, would not have had wells of their own and would have had to fetch their water from the nearest town pump. How this worked in practice was described in a report in the Kent Herald  that is worth quoting at length;48 the conditions described were those of the poor living in the upper part of High Street,

where there are a few wells, in which the water is either naturally bad or rendered so by careless or dirty consumers. The limited supply of water in this locality is intended  to serve many houses: consequently [there are] many families whose demands are most imperfectly supplied for want of convenient  receptacles either to fetch it or keep it for use when obtained; the many that dip at the same well (not always with clean vessels), renders it necessary that the cover should be constantly off, and the most filthy results follow the evil, in consequence of the wells in question being situate close to manure heaps, pig sties, &c., &c. The least brush of wind blows the lighter soil into the well, where it undergoes the process of decomposition and amal­gamation with the water supplied to the poor for consumption; and an instance is not old or rare where the carcase of an animal, strongly resembling one of the feline race, was hooked up. Now calculate the injury that would arise to a poor family refreshing their parched and fevered tongues with drink like this, or quenching healthful thirst with any infusion of such filthy refuse that the very pigs would fall sick upon! A daily train of poor old men, women, and children, very numerous, may be seen with buckets, pots, kettles, and broken-necked bottles, their poverty not allowing them more suitable utensils, fetching water from the town pump, a distance of an eighth of a mile, and this to obtain an imperfect supply of an inferior quality water. It need not here be mentioned how sad those things are, especially for the poor. The very article so necessary to health and comfort in domestic life, a good supply of clean and wholesome water, is unknown to them, and the small quantity of any sort they can obtain tells plainly the privation its absence produces. It may be asked, “how are they restricted in the consumption of water?" For two reasons the consumption is restricted and one of those reasons not only restricts the use of water, but absolutely prohibits its use under a heavy penalty. The first reason is the distant and obscure situation of the well, its insecure state, the constant danger to its principal applicants (children) for a supply, all tend to restrict an ample and necessary consumption of water. The prohibition of its use is to be found in the town act which renders it a punishable offence to throw refuse water down the surface town drains; notwithstanding 19 houses out of every 20 occupied by the poor are without any other means of getting rid of it >and the earth immediately under their dwelling is too frequently the absorbent of the refuse water of the families inhabiting it. >It is then no wonder they so often want the parish doctor. A short supply of water to drink, shorter still the supply for personal ablution and common decency in their occupation and habitations, whence come low fever, stomach and bowel complaints, unnecessary illness, and perhaps death. The subject is of immense importance to all classes, rich as well as poor, the former of whom we hope will assist in carrying out Sanitary Reform.

To fully understand the scale of the problem facing the poor we just need to think about the amount of water consumed in a day. The average person living in an urban area in the 1850s used about 6 gallons per person per day, 8 which can be compared to the UK average in 2008 of 33 gallons per person per day. To put this into context, a case of 12 bottles of spring water from a supermarket contains about 18 litres, slightly less than 4 gallons so that 6 gallons is the equivalent of 18 bottles each day per person, to be carried a distance of up to an eighth of a mile. In Ramsgate (before a local water company was established in 1835) a body of about 30 men acted as water carriers, carrying water from the town pump to all parts of the town, at a rate depending on distance.49 It is not known if a similar system operated in Margate.

Pump Bonner
The Town Pump on the Parade. From The Picturesque Pocket Companion to Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, and the parts adjacent: with 120 Illustrations on Wood, by G. W. Bonner, published by William Kidd, London,1831
Trinity Church1860 Peterkins Pump
The Town Pump outside Trinity Church, shown in a Stereoview of 1860 by Peterkins

The first town pump in Margate was probably located in Pump Lane, a winding lane leading from Bankside, by the side of the Hoy Inn, before snaking back to join Bridge Street. This well was reputed to provide a very clean supply of water;50 it was eventually closed when a new pump was erected in 1831 by the directors of the Margate Pier and Harbour Company on the causeway on Bankside, opposite the Hoy Inn, convenient for the use of vessels in the harbour. The water for the new pump came from the original well in Pump Lane, through 185 feet of lead pipes.51 The Margate Improvement Act of 1825 empowered the Improvement Commissioners to erect six public pumps ‘for the more conveniently supplying the inhabitants . . . with water’.52 It seems likely that the Commissioners in fact only constructed three additional pumps, one opposite Brook Terrace near the back of Upper Marine Terrace, one opposite an open space in Union Crescent where the Congregational Church was later built,  and one in Trinity Square, opposite Trinity School.50 The locations of all four public pumps are marked  ‘P’ on the 1852 Ordnance Survey Map of Margate.

On 28th August 1866 there was an outbreak of cholera at 13 Upper Marine Terrace in which six of the twenty people staying in the house died.53,54 The house was not connected to the water mains then available in Margate but took its water from a well at the bottom of the garden. It was thought that a heavy fall of rain had led to an overflow of the cesspool located close to the well, contaminating the water supply. The Registrar General in London requested a Professor Frankland to analyze the well water and he indeed found contamination with organic matter. It was noted that one of the public pumps (the Brook Terrace pump) was located close to the well of No. 13 Upper Marine Terrace, presumably getting its water from the same spring. The water from all four public pumps was then analyzed and the analyst, Walter Breton, reported in the middle of September that ‘I am of opinion the pump waters of Brook-terrace, Trinity School, and Union-crescent are quite unfit for drinking purposes and culinary operations generally. Each of the three gives indications that the large quan­tity of organic matter it contains is of animal origin, and, in fact, that the three wells are contaminated by infiltration of sewage. That of Brook-terrace is especi­ally bad. The pump water of Fort-road [i.e., the pump on Bankside] contains rather a large proportion of organic matter, but it bears comparison with that of the companies deriving their supply from the Thames, and is probably at present a safe potable water’.55 He ended his report with the warning: ‘In conclusion, I would direct your notice to the great danger attending the use of the waters of ordinary town wells for drinking purposes. The liability to con­tamination by sewage is constant. Such matter may at any time contain choleraic germs in quantity fatal to a consumer.’ The three contaminated public pumps were closed immediately, leaving just the Bankside pump to serve the needs of those not connected to the mains water supply.53 However, by 1874, 2,200 houses in Margate were supplied with water by the private Waterworks Company.54

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Having dealt with sewerage, drainage, and the supply of water, the Board of Health Inspector was then required to investigate ‘the state of the burial grounds’. What to do with the dead had become a major problem in towns and cities throughout the country. Graveyards were usually located in the middle of towns and had been over capacity for years. The Public Health Act of 1848 aimed to reduce the risks posed to the public by the overflowing graveyards.  A report in the Kent Herald for 1849 describes one graveyard in Margate, most probably that of Zion Chapel, where the air is ‘pestilential’ and where ‘the occupiers of the house adjoining assert that the heads of the coffins come flush against the founda­tion or kitchen wall, and have actually been seen through the crevices in the brick wall, and the mice travel in and out, rendering it necessary to cement the holes up’.33  Nearby, the churchyard of St John’s Parish Church  ‘has long been considered full, and without any disinfectant having been applied to it, even during the worst times of the cholera. The very appearance of the place will show it is surcharged with dead bodies, and yet it is surrounded with dwellings, no steps having been taken for its closing which it imperatively demands’. It was estimated that there were about 150 interments a year in the churchyard ‘although its extent is probably not more than an acre at present’ meaning that over the years ‘there has not been less than from 80,000 to 100,000 bodies placed in it; so that, calculating 1,000 upon an acre, it has been used over and over again, or as many times as there have been thousands of interments’:15 [Mottley56 suggested that the number of bodies should actually be 17,000 to 20,000]. Making the situation worse, ‘the neighbourhood of the present churchyard is densely peopled by the lower classes, and it was remarked by several persons that the water of the wells was occasionally affected by filtration through the soil’.15 As well as Zion Chapel, there was the Baptist Chapel (Ebenezer) in New Street.  In this was ‘a capacious vault, in which 40 interments have been made; the last was seven years ago: since that period it has been determined by the pro­prietors to discontinue the practice of burying within the chapel. On each side is a narrow slip of land, where about 40 bodies have been interred.’ TheRoman Catholic Chapel also ‘has a very small piece of land devoted to a cemetery, in which there are about 12 or 13 graves’.15

More details of the Zion Chapel cemetery are revealed in an inspection carried out in 1860 following a complaint from Mr. Job Harding, living in nearby Addington Square.57,58 Harding complained of the ‘system adopted in burying bodies in the cemetery’. His complaint was to the effect that ‘coffins were placed in the ground with only a few inches of earth over them, and the consequence was that the effluvia that arose was most disgusting, and injurious to health; and that a quantity of loose chalk that had been dug from graves had been laid on the ground; and being satura­ted with the decomposition of bodies, a most offensive effluvia arose from it’.

A report of the inspection was published in the Thanet Advertiser the following week:59

the [burial] ground (which is private proper­ty) is set out for 1,134 spaces for graves, and that each space, when sold becomes the freehold property of the purchaser. That 511 spaces are occupied, of which in some, instances, two, three, and four have been appropriated to form one vault; and that there are 623 spaces still remaining unoccupied. That about one half of the occupied spaces contain but one body each, while some others being full, are closed for ever. That since December last, there have been eight burials in the ground, viz.: one in a vault, two in brick graves, and five in the open ground. That no common grave is dug less than 6ft. 6in. to 8ft. deep, and no corpse is in­terred in common graves within three feet of the surface, nor in brick graves within 18 inches of the sur­face. In brick graves a stone slab covers the whole of the grave, resting upon the walls 12 to 18 inches below the surface. One vault, and one only, has air bricks, inserted for ventilation. The vault occupies four or­dinary allotments, is nearly 13ft. deep, and contains seven bodies; each body is enclosed in three coffins:— firstly an ordinary coffin of two-inch fir; secondly, a leaden coffin, hermetically sealed; and lastly, another coffin of two-inch fir. These coffins rest upon stone bearers, and are in sound preservation. The whole area of the vault above the coffins is covered with stone slabs, and it is above these and below the tablet stone that the ventilating bricks are inserted; and although it is not possible that any damage can arise from such air bricks, I have no doubt that they would be removed should the Council deem them objectionable. I find that the chalk complained of in Mr. Harding's letter, as being left in the burial ground, was from excavations for two new brick graves, and was maiden soil — the ground never having before been broken up.   The man­ager states that, in future, all chalk from excavations shall immediately be removed from the ground. There appears, however, to be good cause for complaint with regard to burying in brick graves; for upon removing the stone covering, the coffins became exposed, and I consider that the regulations issued by the Secretary of State (pursuant to the Act 15 and 16 Vic., cap. 85) should be strictly complied with, so that each coffin buried in a vault or walled grave should be separately entombed, in an air tight manner, by properly cemented stone or brickwork, and never after disturbed; and in unwalled graves a layer of earth one foot thick, should be left undisturbed, above the previously buried coffin, and no offensive soil removed; and no coffin of a person above twelve years of age be buried within four feet from the level of the ground.

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Any doubts that might have remained about the imperfect sanitary state of Margate at the time should have been dispelled by a major outbreak of cholera in 1849. Although pneumonia and tuberculosis caused more deaths, cholera engendered a particular terror, partly because it appeared so suddenly in a community and partly because of the particularly unpleasant and undignified nature of a death from cholera.4 Outbreaks of cholera swept from continental Europe into the United Kingdom in 1831, 1848, 1853 and 1866. The 1848 outbreak reached Margate in January 1849, at the Bellevue House Pauper Asylum run by Messrs. Perry and Co., in the Dane.60,61 The Bellevue asylum seems to have been well run. It housed about 150 adults and children in a large house, ‘healthily situated on the declivity of a chalk hill’ with ‘lofty, spacious, well ventilated rooms, and free from bad smells from privies or drains’.62 A report at the time described how ‘the inmates could not be taken better care of in every way’ and that the inmates said that ‘Mrs. Perry was more than attentive to them’.62

On 6 January the Bellevue received 47 children from the Pauper establishment run by a Mr. Drouet in Tooting, London.60,63 Drouet’s school housed up to 1,400 children from a number of workhouses in the London area, and in January an outbreak of diarrhoea  and cholera affected 300 of them, with 100 dying. The children, aged between two and fourteen, were reported to be ‘poor, ill-clothed and half-fed’ and housed in a building ‘totally insufficient for their accommodation.’ The decision was taken to move some of the children to Margate, to reduce the overcrowding in the school. The children moved to Margate were already all suffering from diarrhoea and by Monday, 8 January nine were showing symptoms of cholera, one dying that day, the only child in fact to die. Cholera spread, however, to a number of adults also living in the Bellvue asylum, three of whom died, two on the 11 January and one on the 23rd.64  Fortunately, the outbreak lasted only three weeks and did not spread outside the asylum. A local surgeon, Charles Evans, was able to report in the Morning Chronicle that ‘in the town of Margate itself there has not been a single case of cholera’.65 Nevertheless, the ‘erroneous and false impression’ of a cholera outbreak in the town had already led a number of parents to decide not to send their children to school in Margate.65  

The second outbreak of cholera in Margate started with two sailors and was much more serious.15 The first of the sailors, George Maxted, was taken ill on the Thames at Blackwall and died in Margate on 19 July 1849. The second death, on 21 July, was of George Robinson, another sailor who lived near to Maxted, and was thought to have assisted at his funeral;64  his mother, Charlotte Robinson, living at 7 King street, died of cholera on 26 July. Cholera then spread rapidly, with a total of 124 fatal cases between 19 July and 1 October, when the outbreak came to an end. The majority of the deaths were in the poorer parts of the town. There were three deaths in Pump Lane, George Pamphlet a 49 year old mariner, on 6 August, Susan Perkis, 65 years old, on 21 August and John Jenkins, a 69 year old pauper, on 6 September. Lansell’s Place was badly hit, Francis Holden, a 3 year old child and Kate Mary Colpus, a 6 year old, dying at No. 8 on 8 August and 10 August, respectively, Catherine Colpus, the mother of Kate Mary Colpus, dying on 15 August, and her sister Ellen Colpus, aged 27, on 24 August. Mary Twyman, a 16 year old servant, died at No. 7 Lansell’s Place on 13 August, Ann Craddock, aged 58, at No. 1 on 23 August, William Stranson, aged 52, at No. 5 on 26 August, and Robert Porter, aged 10, and Eliza Ann Holness, both on 9 September at what was described as a ‘small house at the back’ of Lansell’s Place. Also hit was Well’s Yard, Thomas Ranger and Henry Macdonald, both tramps, dying in the Lodging House in Well’s Yard on 16 August and 6 September, respectively. Lydia Twyman, aged 11, and Richard Twyman, aged 1, died on 1 September and 7 September, respectively, at a ‘house much overcrowded’ adjacent to the house in which Ranger had died, and Mary Ann Doughty, a peddler aged 40, died there on 9 September. In Kidman’s row, James Milner, a pauper, died on 21 August, William Gill, a 17 year old labourer, on 26 August and another man named William Gill, possibly his father, on 29 August, his wife, Ann Gill, dying the following day; Richard Edwards, aged 12, died there on 16 September, and Eliza Johnlook, aged 77, died ‘in a loft’ on 29 August. Other victims included three sisters, Caroline Dell, Rosina Dell and Ann Craddock described as ‘hawkers’ who died ‘in a tent or covered cart near Salmslove’ where 15 people lived together, and, perhaps saddest of all, John Griggs, a three year old boy, of whom it was noted only: ‘this family occupied a cellar.’

Cholera also spread to the Sea Bathing Infirmary at Westbrook. The Kent Herald reported:42

It made its appearance about three weeks since, [actually on 26 August15] in two boys, who were seized with it, and, despite medical aid, were dead on the following morning, several others in the same ward being attacked, but were recovered. It then broke out in the women's ward. A young woman was seized, and in the course of a few hours was a corpse. An elderly woman was next attacked, who died in the course of a few hours; then a nurse, who attended on the two last mentioned patients and who also died in a short time. It next made its appear­ance on the men’s side of the house, several of whom were attacked but only one died. This state of things becoming very alarming, the nurses left the Institution, refusing to attend on the sick, and about a hundred and fifty patients were discharged, at their own request, and under the advice of the medical officer . . .  The Institution was lime-washed throughout, and on Wednesday several of the patients were re-admitted, the disorder having entirely left the place.

A. G. Field, the surgeon at the Infirmary at the time, later described how ‘ In 1849 he was in charge of 70 cases of cholera – the Assistant, Matron, and House Steward were all prostrate with the disease; [he] was twice attacked, but escaped. So little assistance could be obtained, that [he] was himself obliged to carry the dead bodies from the wards to the adjoining buildings, where they were deposited until burial. The few nurses who remained were too much alarmed to approach them. After the epidemic had ceased, a cordial vote of thanks was given to the medical officers [including Joshua Waddington and George Yeates Hunter, see below] who never visited the Infirmary’.66

Until the middle of the nineteenth century the cause of epidemics such as cholera was thought to be foul air, in the form of a ‘miasma’ that could spread infection through breathing.Particularly influential were the ideas of the German chemist Justus von Liebig who attributed epidemic diseases ‘to  the putrefaction of large quantities of animal and vegetable  matter’. These ideas gave rise to the ‘Telluric’ theory of cholera, described in a series of articles published in The Times at the height of the national cholera epidemic, which proposed that a combination of putrefying, diseased corpses and faecally contaminated soil together produced ‘a specific Cholera-Miasma’ that spread into the houses, carrying the disease. The theory certainly fitted with the observation that smells of raw sewage and decaying bodies were all too common in places where epidemics broke out.The way to avoid cholera and other epidemics was therefore to improve urban sanitation and burial grounds, major aims, as we have seen, of the Public Health Act of 1848. In fact, although the proposed actions were right, the theory behind them proved to be wrong; cholera was not transmitted through the air but in contaminated water containing the Vibrio cholerae bacterium.